Welcome to the recap digest of our Fall 2023 “Clean & Affordable Energy Conference” on December 6 in Portland, OR! We were excited to host our first in-person conference since 2019 for a day of discussion around energy issues facing our region. Before we jump into the recap, we’d like to thank the sponsors who helped make this event possible!
Panel 1 – Energy efficiency and distributed energy resources for vulnerable populations
The moderator Charlee Thompson, Policy Associate with the NW Energy Coalition, kicked off the first panel and introduced the four panelists to provide their opening remarks:
- Sarah Hall, Resources and Program Development Manager, Oregon Public Utility Commission
- Veena Prasad, Program Director, Spark Northwest
- Sam Baraso, Program Manager, Portland Clean Energy Fund
- Linda Garcia, Policy and Outreach Director, Washington State Community Action Partnership
Sarah started the remarks off with an overview of the Oregon Public Utility Commission. The PUC is responsible for rate regulation of Oregon’s investor-owned electric utilities, natural gas utilities, and landline telephone utilities. The PUC provides direct administration of Oregon’s community solar program, and oversight of Energy Trust of Oregon, transportation electrification, distribution system planning, and HB 2021 implementation. Next steps at the PUC include implementation of Energy Affordability Act (HB 2475) and continuing to embed equity in the culture and approach of the PUC, among other things.
Veena talked about the importance of a community-centric approach to clean energy. This includes making distributed energy resources reach those who need it. She described Spark Northwest’s work with Tribal nations, municipalities, grants for rural farms and small businesses, and community-based organizations to access energy efficiency and clean energy. She emphasized that these relationships move at the speed of trust, which takes time. It’s important to move from a one-way outreach approach to a two-way engagement. This is more partnership-based and raises the probability of long-term impact.
Sam centered his remarks on the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF), which generates over $100 million annually for clean energy investments in Portland. The City of Portland’s Climate Investment Plan (CIP) guides PCEF and allocates $750 million in climate investments over the next five years. The plan includes allocations to 16 strategic programs, a tree maintenance reserve fund, and to the Community Responsive Grants (CRG) program. The CRG program is designed to exclusively invest in projects by community-based, nonprofit organizations. 63% of PCEF is earmarked for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.
Linda closed out remarks talking about WA State Community Action Partnership’s 30 agencies across 39 counties that strengthen communities through job creation, business development, and weatherization programs that lower utility bills. Her mission is to keep equity at the forefront. Linda emphasized that ending generational poverty and inequity is the right thing to do. Poverty is not a business, and all parties need to collaborate to help communities.
Charlee then led a discussion on examples of energy efficiency and distributed energy resources for energy burdened households. Some highlights from panelists’ responses:
- Verde is a community-based organization that helps install heat pumps, solar, and battery backup in homes and affordable housing projects. One of the challenges is decarbonizing the common area loads in multi-family buildings.
- The Energy Transitions Partnership Program provides funding on a long-term basis: up to 18 months in rural and remote communities.
- King County’s Energize! heat pump pilot program will provide heat pumps to 150 homes free of charge to qualifying low-income households, with other discounts also available. The intention is to hire women-led contracting businesses as well.
- The Washington Community Action Partnership offers various programs that support affordable and stable housing, rooftop solar, offset residents’ rents, as well as cooling and heating systems. The WA Department of Commerce’s Solar for All program provides grants for low-income residents to install solar.
The panel then analyzed the barriers and opportunities to expanding the use of energy efficiency and distributed energy resources.
- Contractor shortages, lack of training, and job turnover are some big ones. Older homes need significant weatherization which can be expensive. The technology for battery storage is also expensive for many.
- A lot of issues add up cost-wise: the deferred maintenance in homes; cost of panel upgrades; asbestos mitigation, and lack of insulation.
- Grant funds are hard for many communities to navigate and apply for – it can be overwhelming to receive so many messages during the process. Many community members are non-English speakers which poses an additional challenge.
- There are many new resources dedicated to this work. An Energy Navigator program could be a great central resource hub of information on services, contractors, and financing for interested residents. WA HB 1391 would have created such a program last year. The bill didn’t pass but could resurface in upcoming legislative sessions.
Charlee asked the panelists to address how we ensure that the communities these projects are intended to benefit also share that buy-in and feel ownership of these projects.
- We need to continue having conversations and leveraging successes. Using metrics and looking at community benefit indicators can better inform clean energy plans and transportation electrification programs.
- Outreach, outreach, outreach. We need more boots on the ground and engagement of small organizations run by and for impacted communities. On a higher level we need to answer questions about accessing funding, and we need support for plans and studies on the benefits of DERs and energy efficiency.
- We need to push for funding with fewer constraints, that’s flexible, and more long-term. The IRA funding has constraints that can be limiting.
And the panel concluded by examining what additional frameworks are needed from regulators and policymakers and what other resources are available.
- We need to simplify the interconnection process among solar projects and allow for more energy storage.
- We need more guidance from utilities to more quickly transition away from fossil fuels.
- More capacity funding and support is a must. We can’t implement programs if we can’t pay staff. There should be more capacity support for smaller organizations. The Emerald Cities Collaborative’s e-contractor training program is helping to train and support small and minority-owned contracting businesses. There is a challenge around procurement.
- The Trade Ally Network is a good resource. We need to develop a diverse workforce and review metrics annually.
Panel 2 – Modernizing the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA)
Moderator Lauren McCloy, Policy Director of the Coalition, introduced the four panelists:
- Nicole Hughes, Executive Director, Renewable Northwest
- Les Purce, WA Council Member, Northwest Power and Conservation Council
- Emeka Anyanwu, Energy Innovation and Resources Officer, Seattle City Light
- Rob Lothrop, Policy Development and Litigation Support Manager, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission
Emeka shared that SCL is BPA’s second largest customer by load, with 36% of SCL’s energy portfolio coming from BPA. SCL was the first of BPA’s customers to join the Western Energy Imbalance Market (WEIM), and SCL is currently evaluating additional market options. Emeka called on BPA to help preserve and protect hydro resources, engage in proactive long-term planning and use a value-based approach to market choices.
Rob centered his remarks on a story about the 2001 drought in the Northwest that harmed fish. This extreme event made CRITFC decide that a new energy vision was needed to help lighten the demand on the Columbia River hydrosystem. You can read the updated version of CRITFC’s Energy Vision here.
Nicole emphasized in her opening remarks that the future for BPA should include increased transparency, along with working more closely with Tribes.
Les noted the NWPCC creates regional power plans every five years and has two councilmembers from each of the four Northwest states (Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana). Les noted that to modernize BPA we need to modernize everyone – all of our organizations, including the NWPCC and its councilmembers.
Lauren then led a discussion on what critical actions BPA need to take in the near term to ensure that it can meet the demands of a modern regional electric system in 2030.
- BPA owns 75% of Northwest transmission. It was fortunately overbuilt initially, but new load growth from population growth, data centers, and electrification means we’re behind on infrastructure investment and need to invest additional resources in this area.
- We don’t have enough investment to meet the 2030 climate mandates. We’ll need to take measured risks to build before financing is done and we need to take risks to take advantage of federal investments.
- Appropriate siting and building of infrastructure is a bigger issue than BPA. Sovereign nations have a role to play, and we need to collaborate and make space for them.
- We need strategic siting and use of resources. Folks should read the Nature Conservancy’s Power of Place West report. The report looks out to 2050, providing a needed long-term vision for our clean energy future. There are also 11 recommendations for BPA in the report, showing the important role BPA has to play in this transition.
- Small, incremental, internal policy changes at BPA won’t be enough to meet the new demand for federal energy infrastructure.
- Markets are perhaps the single most important focus area for BPA as the agency considers needed infrastructure. It’s important to have new voices in the room as market decisions are considered.
- The world’s largest market failure is climate change. We’re focused too narrowly on the least-cost, least-risk options, and need to also look at Community Benefit Indicators (CBIs): wildlife impacts, local resiliency and the sustainability of communities when weighing new projects.
The conversation then focused on how BPA can adapt its processes and programs to ensure transparency, equity, and robust public participation.
- We should encourage broad and bipartisan engagement on these issues.
- The Western Resource Adequacy Program (WRAP) was a good example of different perspectives voluntarily coming together around a shared goal. We should carry those lessons to other processes.
- Too often, BPA brings decisions to stakeholders and asks for feedback. They should instead ask stakeholders what solutions they have to inform BPA’s decisions.
- BPA makes its own rates, oversees its own reporting, and its own compliance. We need to have a higher level of accountability for BPA.
- The difficulty of modernizing BPA is because of the long-term stability we’ve benefitted from in the region. That’s changing, and we need to adapt.
An audience member noted that buildings are seen as load users only, but they have the potential to provide distributed energy resources and demand response programs. They asked how we can create a modern building stock as we modernize the grid?
The panelists responded that BPA can work with its customer utilities to develop programs that best serve the buildings and loads within their communities.
Community Cohort Roundtable Discussion
The Community Cohort is a group of individuals from across Oregon with a shared interest in learning about energy and ways to advocate before the Oregon Public Utility Commission (PUC). The moderator, Alma Pinto, Energy Justice Policy Associate of the NW Energy Coalition, gave an overview of the group and their efforts to help pass HB 2021, the Clean Energy targets bill, and HB 2475, which provides intervenor funding to increase Environmental Justice groups’ participation in PUC processes. Alma then introduced the panelists for the discussion:
- Alessandra de la Torre, Policy Associate, NW Energy Coalition
- Nikita Daryanani, Climate & Energy Policy Manager, Coalition of Communities of Color
- Maria Dolores, Community organizer, Adelante Mujeres
- Alec Perrone, Community Cohort Member
- Martha Herman, Spanish Translator
Alma asked the participants to describe why they are a part of the Cohort.
- I saw a chance to get involved with energy policy and shape the future.
- I had firsthand experience with utility shutoffs and wanted to make change for the many others still facing similar shutoffs.
- Lots of impacted families have started to realize what energy issues exist and want to be a part of change. We need to put these voices at the front and center of these discussions around energy issues.
- Community voices often aren’t considered expertise, but they are and need to be in these conversations around energy. Passing HB 2021 helped in centering community voices, but implementation is just as important. The community cohort is a natural progression to keep that going.
The panel then explored how the cohort fits into the community engagement that utilities are doing directly.
- Official efforts at community engagement from utilities can often be inaccessible to communities.
- Barriers for community members to participate in utility processes include that meetings happen during work times, there are confusing acronyms that folks don’t understand, and that they may not see themselves represented in the group.
- This is why the community cohort is so essential – we can learn together and fully digest what new policies mean for our communities, how to engage together, and how to engage the utilities.
Alma asked the panelists to share a memorable experience and how the cohort can position itself for the future.
- The group created an accessible space for community members to learn together. I feel like I can now come together with people from all different backgrounds and languages and comfortably share our perspectives on these issues.
- I feel like I belong in a group like this, which is so special to me. I hope others can learn from my experience and the need to create a sense of belonging for people from different backgrounds.
- A memorable experience was reviewing PacifiCorp’s Clean Energy Plan. We reviewed it together bit by bit, and then submitted comments to the PUC. It was helpful to re-envision the energy system together with community input.
- It was powerful to hear Maria give testimony in Spanish at the PUC, which was the first time I’ve ever heard of that happening in that space.
- I feel more knowledgeable to help my own community, but there’s more work to do. It’s hard for Spanish-speakers, and it’s even harder for people who don’t speak Spanish or English.
- If you give excluded communities more opportunities, we can make this already great state even better.
Keynote Speaker – Oregon State Senator Kate Lieber
Highlights from Senator Lieber’s remarks:
- We need to build 36,000 housing units in Oregon. One third of the buildings that will exist in 2050 don’t exist yet. We need to build efficiency into the DNA of everything we create. This helps conserve energy, and also contributes to long-term affordability.
- Building efficiency, from the public sector to commercial buildings, is critical. Oregon has a goal of installing 500,000 heat pumps by 2030 to help with that.
- There’s so much federal funding on climate that is on the verge of rolling out. We need to tap into that funding with the right state policies.
- The Climate Resilience Package we passed in the legislature is a $90 million investment in things like community resiliency, adaptation and reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions in the building sector. This could return up to $1 billion in federal funding over the coming years.
- We need to continue with program alignment and creating a navigation center, so folks know how to tap into incentives and where our funding is going.
- Siting for the expected growth in housing and manufacturing also needs a more open discussion.
Keynote Speaker – Rich Glick
Rich Glick, Principal of GQ New Energy Strategies, gave the next remarks. As a former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Commissioner, Rich provided perspective on the bigger picture and national scope, which added to the day’s discussion.
- The Inflation Reduction Act seems likely to continue no matter who controls Congress next year, despite some discussion from Republicans on repealing it. Many of the announced renewable projects and manufacturing plants are located all over the country, showing that the economic benefits are widespread.
- Decisions that FERC makes have a huge impact on the energy transition. While public utilities and BPA aren’t regulated by FERC, private utilities and a majority of other parts of the country are.
- Transmission is a key issue in the energy transition. FERC is pushing for more long-term transmission on a 20-year basis.
- A contentious issue is who pays for transmission upgrades. Regional transmission lines are beneficial, but spanning across multiple states and utilities makes it difficult to allocate costs.
- There has been some success in having states allocate the costs of new transmission amongst themselves. States should set up more working groups to figure out these regional decisions: the most efficient lines and where facilities should be built.
- Distributed generation and demand response are really important, and can help with affordability. We need to facilitate more of this to help with the substantial increase in demand for electricity.
- After the Western power crisis around 2001, the prevailing sentiment was that states wanted to do things on their own. Slowly but surely there’s a growing belief that the region needs to work together. The Western Resource Adequacy Program’s (WRAP) shows the region can work together.
- A more national grid that would support the transport of wind energy from an area of abundance to an area that needs it would be great. Congress has commissioned a study on more-connected transmission and sharing energy. We should consider the geography of different areas to optimize sending clean energy from one area to another.
Panel 3 – Rethinking utility planning for equity and affordability
Moderator, Diego Rivas, Regulatory Counsel of the Coalition, gave an overview of the shifting landscape and expectations to include more community voices in discussions around utility planning. He then introduced the four panelists for opening remarks:
- Yasmin Abraham, President and Co-Founder, Kambo Energy Group
- Mariel Thuraisingham, Clean Energy Policy Lead, Front and Centered
- Jenn Latu, Manager of Community Engagement, Portland General Electric
- Heather Moline, Section Manager of Energy Planning, Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission
Kambo Energy Group has worked with 80,000 underserved households over the past 15 years and has three major programs, including their Home Upgrades program, a community-led, low-income retrofit fit program in Canada with a goal to reduce energy poverty in each home. The second program, Community Power, focuses on housing within Indigenous Nations. The third program, Empower Me, delivers multi-lingual educational programming to immigrant and newcomer communities to ensure their participation in the climate and home retrofit programming.
Mariel said in her remarks that justice and equity considerations are too often not prioritized. She brought up the need to prioritize the benefits that come with a just transition, and that equity should be intertwined in the clean energy transition. She brings this work into the policy arena, where planning decisions, funding decisions, and powerful decisions are taking place.
Jenn’s remarks started with some context on Portland General Electric, which services almost half of panel Oregon’s population. She helps with the utility’s community advisory group as part of HB 2021 implementation. Jenn noted how PGE’s community advisory group currently has 13 members that represent and serve environmental justice communities. Jenn and her colleagues bring creative approaches to the work of community engagement to help make the group successful.
Heather mentioned the Equity Docket that just launched at the Washington UTC, which will provide guidance to regulated utilities to help them develop equity action plans that better engage impacted communities. She noted that there are often many different terms to define the communities that these efforts try to reach. It’s important to understand who specifically we’re talking about in these conversations.
Diego then led a discussion on the best practices to effectively increase benefits and reduce harm for communities.
- Utilities and governments try to retrofit programs for equity, but that may not be what communities need. We need to listen first and inform program design based on that feedback.
- We need solutions that go beyond just energy, things like safety, jobs, education, health, and contractor procurement.
- Programs should look like the people they serve, beyond just the outreach team – the marketing team, and the staff creating the applications and forms.
- It’s mutually beneficial when decision makers have real connections with the communities they serve.
- We need to move beyond just checking a box, but actually defer to community voices and give them more power in decisions.
The panel went on to discuss what changes and recommendations would be useful.
- Some aspects of equity are incredibly valuable, like community resilience, but are harder to quantify and fit into models. That can make it more difficult to show regulators what a utility is doing to increase equity and community engagement.
- It’s important to do the work on a personal level and build relationships and trust with communities. That’s key to avoiding a transactional relationship around this work.
- Designing and facilitating advisory groups is its own unique, technical skillset. Utilities and agencies should hire people who specialize in designing and facilitating these groups.
- You can’t homogenize everyone into one group. Utilities that go out into communities to understand their needs will have quicker success than waiting for folks to reach out to them.
- Meaningful engagement includes level setting and onboarding participants so they can more readily participate.
- Sometimes getting funding for necessary work, like home repairs for low-income households, requires a patchwork of healthcare funds, education funds, and utility funds.